The Night the Simpsons Ceased to be Relevant

03 May

As long as I can remember, I have always been a fan of the Simpsons. The show started when I was 10 and seemed for the longest time to get better season after season. And while it was inevitable that a television show that has been around almost thirty (30) seasons would begin to lose its luster, for years the show managed to stay relevant due to its uncanny ability to have its finger on the pulse of society and often, for its clairvoyant ability to stay ahead of the curve. In fact, references to the Simpsons accurately predicting the future currently yields over 137 million results on Google (“Simpsons Predictions”) and have spawned a number of pieces on the subject by journalistic heavyweights like Time Magazine, CNN, and the New York Times As such, even if the show had lost some of its comedic punch over the last three decades, the show was still intelligent and interesting enough from a cultural perspective to keep tuning in.

However, as much as it pains me to say this; the Simpsons’ place within contemporary society ceased to a fixture with its April 2018 episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished.” Some context however. In 2017 actor and standup comedian Hari Kondabolu (who like most was a fan of the Simpsons) developed a documentary entitled “the Problem with Apu” wherein he examines how a show known for its outlandish, yet progressive and socially conscious humor generally, could continue to display a character that exhibited the most egregious Indian stereotypes. As a South Asian myself it was especially easy to understand the point that Mr. Kondabolu was making and how Apu’s character, catchphrases, and general buffoonery have done more harm than good for South Asians, particularly those living in Western societies. However, even if you are not South Asian, the contrast between a show that is again, generally progressive and socially conscious, with a character that encapsulates the worst perceptions about South Asians should be evident enough to any semi-self-aware individual watching the show (provided of course that they are themselves not prone to racist inclinations in general). Mr. Kondabolu interviewed a number of prominent South Asians for his piece (Kal Penn for example, highlighted that he hates the show due to the Apu character and what it stands for) and the discussion contained within the documentary was so powerful that it started to move from out from one documentary and permeate into the general social consciousness. In fact, the discussion was so moving that it not only spawned a number of thought provoking conversations within the mainstream media, but forced members of the Simpsons’ creative team, including the voice of the character Hank Azaria, to comment on the growing movement which was seeking  greater accountability from the Simpsons in relation to their Apu character. For his part when asked by a TMZ paparazzo about his thoughts on Kondabolu’s documentary and the larger debate which flowed from it Azaria responded with the following, “I think the documentary made some really interesting points and gave us a lot to think about, and we really are..To hear that anybody that was hurt and offended by any character or vocal performance is really upsetting, that it was offensive or hurtful to anybody.” This response from Azaria while somewhat evasive still seemed to encompass enough of the traditional sincerity and social thought that one had come to except by the Simpsons brain-trust and was enough to make one believe that progressive action would be taken in regards to the Apu character. At the very least, it could be expected that the Simpsons team would attempt to engage in a meaningful discussion around the insensitivities many have perceived with the Apu character. Unfortunately, that was the last thing that would be forthcoming.

In the lead-up to the debut of “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” Simpsons showrunner Al Jean took to Twitter to cryptically reveal that  something provocative was going to happen on the show and was so powerful that it was going to draw some kind of “Twitter explosion.” Was this merely a ratings grab for a dwindling show or a foreshadow that the Simpsons was finally going to address the growing controversy around the Apu character? While it was definitely the latter (or perhaps both), unfortunately, given the manner in which the exchange referenced by Jean unfolded it is safe to say that the Simpsons had no desire to engage in any meaningful discussion of what impacts Apu’s character had on anyone, let alone South Asians, and as such were only willing to provide  a clumsy defense of the character. More specifically, the scene in question depicts the Simpson matriarch Marge conversing with her (usually) socially conscious daughter Lisa on the difficulties of making a childhood book politically correct. The scene proceeds with the following exchange:

MARGE: What am I supposed to do?

LISA: It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?

MARGE: Some things will be dealt with at a later date.

LISA: If at all.

After Lisa’s “if at all” statement the two characters stare at the viewer in a shot where the viewer sees a framed signed photo of Apu that reads “Don’t have a Cow.”

Taken as a whole this sequence was completely baffling and it seemed like the Simpsons’ brass had completely forgotten about all the nuanced, intelligent, and socially conscious discussions it had had over the last three decades and returned instead to its lame “don’t have a cow”-“I’m an underachiever and proud of it” humor rampant at its inception. It was as if 30 years of this show’s development went out the window because not only was the scene not funny, but the show’s response flew in the face of what made it a hit and what allowed it to run years past when it should have ended: It’s grip and clairvoyance with respect to modern society.

In this brief exchange not only did the show manage to crudely ignore the concerns, hurt, and frustrations of many (and not just South Asians), but to use the most socially conscious and liberal character on the show to deliver this tough-luck blind defense in the face of a genuine problem enunciated by countless members of society was a complete betrayal of the show’s ethos.

More frustrating even still is the logic on which the Simpsons premises its argument. To imply that a character who exhibits racist and offensive traits by today’s standards can still be justified and/or exempted from criticism because it was tolerated three decades ago is lunacy. By that logic entertainers would be still be permitted to don black face with impunity, the worst homosexual stereotypes and spoofs allowed, Chinese (and other Asian) accents routinely mocked at nauseam, and spousal abuse humor in the vein of Ralph Kramden proudly showcased and applauded. As such, the argument that culturally insensitive depictions should be allowed some kind of grandfather clause is ridiculous and it was truly a sad day when the Simpsons who had historically stayed ahead of the curve managed to flagrantly fell behind it.

However, despite the Simpsons obtuse approach to the Apu issue, I am still very much a proponent of free speech and any speech generally which is made without malice. As such, even if the Simpsons seems to have lost its way and exited social relevance, for all of the good it has done I still think there is path to redemption. If the Simpsons brain-trust were to abandon the puzzling approach to the discussion around the Apu character and work with members of the South Asian community and social activists in a more considerate manner (or at the very least meaningfully listen to the points they raise), I am confident a solution could be easily be found to the Apu problem. Although not meant to be an exhaustive list, if the Simpsons brass would broaden their minds on this issue, there are a number of things they could do to actually keep the Apu character while still respecting the South Asian community such as; having someone actually of South Asian descent voice the character, allow Apu, who according to the Simpsons was first in his class and has a Ph.D. in computer science to move past employment at a convenience store, have Apu involved in more storylines beyond those that ridicule him and/or help to entrench vapid South Asian stereotypes (i.e. Apu’s arranged marriage), and finally, have more than one South Asian depiction on the show other than Apu’s family as that would help to exemplify the true diversity of South Asians and South Asian Culture.

While it is hard to forgive or even understand the actions of the Simpsons’ executives for their missteps in relation to the movement surrounding Apu, given its socially conscious roots it should not be hard for the Simpsons to find a path to redemption if they actually choose to work with the movement. As a Simpsons fan I am confident that the path to redemption is also the path back to relevance as well.

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